Brooklyn Nets: Defensive improvements masked by change of pace

Brooklyn Nets Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The stat sheet shows the Brooklyn Nets have regressed defensively since last season, but a deeper dive finds that to be a product of the NBA’s changing pace.

The Brooklyn Nets are a better defensive team in 2018-19 than they were last season, even if the stat sheet doesn’t say so.

The improvements are marginal in many cases, but still present, just masked by the NBA’s much-increased pace of play this season.

Last season, the Nets surrendered an average of 110.3 points per game while finishing 28-54. This season after 28 games, Brooklyn has allowed 110.6 points per game en route to a record of 10-18.

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That’s not marginally better, one could conclude. It’s actually marginally worse.

Well, yes, in a purely literal sense. But not when one takes a deeper dive inside the numbers.

The NBA is playing at a much faster pace this season than it did a year ago as the Golden State Warriors/Houston Rockets style of pacing and spacing takes a deeper hold on offenses around the NBA.

Last season, the Nets placed at a pace of 99.74 possessions per game, which made them the sixth-fastest team in the NBA.

Their pace is down, again marginally, this season to 99.38 possessions per game. But that decrease of less than half a possession per game has plunged Brooklyn to the seventh-slowest team in the league this season.

A total of 22 teams this season are playing at a pace of more than 100 possessions an outing, compared to only five a season ago.

To take the pace trends a bit further, a look at the available data on pace of play from paints a telling picture:

Number of teams playing at a pace of 100+ per season

  • 1996-97 through 2014-15: 3 (1999-2000 Sacramento Kings, 2007-08 Denver Nuggets, 2009-10 Golden State Warriors)
  • 2015-16: 2 (Sacramento, Golden State)
  • 2016-17: 4 (Brooklyn, Phoenix Suns, Rockets, Warriors)
  • 2017-18: 5 (New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State)
  • 2018-19: 22

That’s right, folks: There are 22 teams this season playing at a pace that just 14 teams reached over the last 22 seasons.

When normalizing for pace, the defense of the Nets has improved slightly from 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (21st in the NBA) to 109.5 points per 100 possessions this season (20th in the NBA).

As previously mentioned, it’s a marginal improvement.

One area that is more difficult to quantify is defensive rebounding. Brooklyn is surrendering 11.1 offensive boards per game this season, up from 10.4 last season.

But part of that is a byproduct of playing slightly better defense overall — opponents shot 46.6 percent last season and are hitting 46.2 percent this season. Fewer makes leaves more rebounds.

One area where the Nets’ defense is undeniably improved is in pressuring opposing ball-handlers. Last season, Brooklyn forced an NBA-low 12.4 turnovers per game. This season, they are still in the bottom 10 in that category, but are forcing 13.8 turnovers a night, good for 22nd in the NBA.

Brooklyn is switching more this season, in part because of the progression center Jarrett Allen has made and in part because their lineup is almost size-neutral outside of Allen.

Allen is much quicker and a more capable athlete than were starting centers Timofey Mozgov and Tyler Zeller last season. Backup Ed Davis also does a very good job of switching onto smaller players and keeping them in front of him in those situations.

As for the lineup question, the most frequently used five-man unit this season remains the group that began the campaign as the starting five — Allen, Jared Dudley, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell.

Besides Allen, none of the group is taller than 6-foot-7 nor shorter than 6-foot-5. That lends itself to great flexibility when it comes to switches and makes it a bit easier for Brooklyn to avoid mismatches on the perimeter (Dudley’s relative lack of quickness and speed notwithstanding).

So if it feels like the Nets have made some progress defensively, even if the per-game numbers don’t immediately back that up, it’s because they have gotten better defensively, if not a great deal better.

But the Nets had a 111.3 defensive rating in eight games in October, a 110.2 mark in 15 November games and are at 104.8 in five games so far this month.

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A work in progress to be sure, but based on the monthly breakdown there is definitely progress being made.